Exclusive: Top Afghan War Commander Reassessing Withdrawal Timeline

Exclusive: Top Afghan War Commander Reassessing Withdrawal Timeline

The top commander overseeing the international military effort in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, is assessing whether more coalition troops should stay in the country to train Afghan troops for longer than would be allowed under the Obama administration’s current plans for a complete withdrawal in 2016.

In a phone interview from Kabul, Campbell said he was "beginning now to take a hard look" at what effect delays in concluding a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan and the months of uncertainty over the country’s presidential elections have had on the preparedness of the Afghan military. Afghan forces have been taking heavy casualties in recent months while they battle the resurgent Taliban.

"Do I come back and do I alert my leadership and say we are coming down to this number, we need to hold a little bit longer to take advantage of some of the things that President [Ashraf] Ghani has put in place and we need more NATO forces in certain locations for longer?" Campbell said. "I’ve got to do that analysis and we’re just starting that now."

President Barack Obama has said he plans to withdraw all American troops by the end of 2016 after handing over security responsibilities to the Afghans. The drawdown has already begun, with U.S. and international troops sticking to that timetable despite requests for a longer deployment from Ghani’s government and reports that suggest the Taliban are gaining ground in key districts in the south and east of Afghanistan.

Ghani took power in September as part of a power-sharing agreement that installed his rival Abdullah Abdullah as the chief executive officer of a new unity government. Campbell said Ghani was trying to boost the morale of the Afghan security forces, who had been angered by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s willingness to free captured militants and place constraints on the military’s use of force.

The new president is planning to ease restrictions on night raids and the use of heavier weapons while also insisting that captured militants face trials, Campbell said.

Last month U.S. Marines and British troops withdrew from the highly contentious southern province of Helmand after closing Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion. The United States had about 19,650 troops in the country as of Oct. 28 and the rest of the coalition had another 10,460. The American troop presence is set to decline to 9,800 at the start of 2015.

Insurgent attacks have reached the highest levels since 2011, the Afghan army has sustained heavy combat losses and is experiencing high attrition rates, and opium poppy cultivation has more than doubled from its pre-1999 levels when the Taliban ruled the country. These trends potentially undermine the Afghan state’s legitimacy at a time when the nation is experiencing budget shortfalls, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a quarterly report sent to Congress last week.

Campbell declined to prejudge the outcome of his review and whether it would recommend that U.S. troops stay beyond 2016, the timeline that Obama has set. Campbell said his advice would go through his chain of command. 

"There’s a current transition plan and I’ve no issues with that," Campbell said, referring to the timeline for transferring responsibility to Afghans. "As I look at what happened here in the summer season and do an after-action with the Afghans and with the rest of the coalition, we’ll make adjustments to that based on what the enemy had done," he said, referring to the fighting that typically intensifies during summer months.

Campbell served as the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army before taking over as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in late August. He previously served in Afghanistan as the regional commander of coalition forces in the east.

Relations with Ghani are much more cordial than they had been with Karzai, Campbell said. That marks a contrast with the extremely strained ties that marked the last 12 months of the former president’s tenure, when he began accusing Americans of colluding with the Taliban and carrying out widespread human rights violations in the country.

The delay in hammering out a bilateral security agreement may have affected the preparedness of Afghan forces, Campbell said.

Ghani feels like his troops may be "six to eight months" behind schedule because of the delay, Campbell said. The Afghan president has asked Campbell to work with officials in Afghanistan’s interior and defense ministries to determine where the Afghan forces would have been at the end of 2015 and 2016 without delays.

Afghanistan’s neighbors Pakistan and India have asked U.S. officials to reconsider their decision to withdraw all troops by 2016 after seeing the rise of the Islamic State militancy across Iraq. The call to reconsider the withdrawal date has been echoed by several U.S. lawmakers as well.

Campbell acknowledged that commanders have to take into account changing conditions.

"Every new commander that comes on the ground has to make assessments as conditions change," Campbell said. "You’ve seen it in Iraq and Syria; conditions change on the ground and people have to make different decisions. That’s what every commander does and that’s what I’m doing."

During his confirmation hearing in July, Campbell told senators that he would make his own assessment of the security situation and report to his chain of command if a longer American presence in Afghanistan was required beyond 2016.

Still, Afghanistan is not Iraq, Campbell said. In Iraq the government "didn’t embrace the international coalition and they were creating ethnic tension. I don’t see that happening in Afghanistan," he said, citing Ghani’s unity government with his rival and the president’s recent overture to the Taliban to resume peace talks.

Afghan National Security Forces that number about 335,000 and include both military and police units have been able to deny the Taliban control of territory, Campbell said, disputing reports that insurgents now control large parts of the provinces of Kunduz and Helmand.

Last month Reuters reported that the Taliban controlled almost all of two out of seven districts in Kunduz. The group is gaining influence elsewhere in the province because residents lack trust in what little state authority exists, according to Reuters.

Campbell said such reports only indicate the Taliban’s ability to "win the media space with exaggerated victories." The attacks in Kunduz are not all "insurgency, and some of that is criminality, some drug issues going back across the border, smuggling, and corruption," he said.

When all elements of the Afghan forces coordinate their activities with each other, "they’re able to beat the Taliban," Campbell said.

The coalition forces still provide most of the close air support, aviation assistance, and aerial surveillance and reconnaissance but Afghans will get better in 2015 and 2016, Campbell said.

The Afghans are also creating the equivalent of the ground-based U.S. joint tactical air controllers capable of directing airborne strikes, he said.

The Afghan air force has "limited capability for air assault, armed escort, and [surveillance or reconnaissance missions] — and none of its crews are capable of flying at night," according to an independent assessment of the Afghan forces prepared for the Pentagon in January by CNA Corp., a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

The Afghan air force is phasing out its Mi-35 Russian-made helicopters, which have very limited reach, by 2016 and replacing them with 20 A-29 Super Tucano fixed-wing aircraft that can be based in Kabul, Kandahar, and Shindand, according to the CNA report.

In contrast to the regular army forces, Afghan special forces have capabilities that rival the country’s neighbors, Campbell said. The U.S. and Afghan special forces are largely focused on counterterrorism efforts aimed at defeating the remnants of al Qaeda that still exist along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Afghan special forces pilots "can do things that no other country in the area can do as far as their ability to go long distances at night, land on landing zones in remote areas to drop off special forces," Campbell said. These units have their own surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and can download "a full motion video link to special forces on the ground looking at an iPad-type console."

The coalition’s training program for the Afghan special operations forces stretches to lower echelons of the force than in the regular army and that has paid dividends, Campbell said.

Of the 9,800 American troops that will be present in Afghanistan at the start of 2015, about 980 will be focused on counterterrorism missions, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told Congress in July during his confirmation hearing.

Afghanistan’s own needs for commando forces to take on terrorists will continue to grow, the CNA report said. But expanding the current 12,000-member force would require a larger number of international trainers and the accompanying need for equipment to support a larger special operations force, the report said.